Over the past few months but especially over the past weeks, headlines, social media and essentially the internet exploded with comments and reactions to Adele posting an Instagram photo of herself on her birthday. It’s also worth noting that Adele hadn’t made a comment about her weight or body and so all of the reactions, assumptions, and comments were assumptions without the context or consent of her own experience and permission. Comments ranged from “she is so healthy and happy now” to “she is too small” etc.
Like most things, this post isn’t about Adele’s weight itself but about the public & media’s response to it it’s unfortunately a good example of diet culture in real time and brings the topic of comments on bodies and weight to the surface.
Why are these comments problematic? What should we say? Is there ever a right thing to say or time to say it?
Why are comments on weight and bodies not helpful?
Even if your intention is to compliment someone, consider the impact
Let’s take a step back. You, probably like me, lived most of your life (maybe right up until this sentence) not thinking much about making comments on weight – especially along the lines of complimenting weight loss, or assuming weight gain was something to avoid. This is largely because we live in a society where these two messages are accepted as truth and not often questioned. So maybe you also arrived at gatherings and heard the gushing over someone’s weight loss, or the blurred line between someone saying you ‘look great’ and ‘have you lost weight?’ implying the two are synonymous.
I remember the first time I ever heard a comment about bodies – mine or someone else’s. It was in ballet when I was 4 and the girls were lining up at the mirror to compare our 4-6 year old bellies. I’ve had countless clients and followers on social media share their stories with me of how well-meaning (and not well-meaning) body comments from family or strangers had contributed to their disordered eating, difficulties with body image and overall discomfort with these comments that stay with them for years and lifetimes.
They promote a harmful diet culture narrative: that some bodies are better than others
The root of these comments is the belief that some body shapes/sizes are better than or more desirable than others. To compliment someone for being in a smaller body, implies that being in a larger body or higher weight was a bad thing. And, to negatively speak about gaining weight or a growing body implies the weight gain is something to be fearful of. It’s really hard to compliment one thing without discouraging the opposite. *Weight/weight-loss does not equal health & health does not equal your value as a person.*
A comment on one body, is a comment on all bodies
If you’ve ever thought “I don’t mean them! I just mean my arms look bad – not anyone else’s!” When you make a comment or judgement about bodies – even yourself – you are also saying it about all bodies. Someone who is in earshot hears it and is given a micro-lesson that arms are something to be self-conscious about, if their arms look like yours maybe thinking their arms are ‘bad’ too, or that people are going around judging arms and might be thinking about theirs.
You don’t know what’s going on with this person & their weight
Change in weight is a sign that something has changed, sometimes that’s behaviors, an illness, external factors, something intentional or unintentional but it’s not always good and when we treat it like the most impressive thing a human can do we can set ourselves up for a rocky relationship with ourselves, our bodies, health, food and exercise, self-esteem, etc. Regardless of whether it’s healthy or not, it is far from the most impressive thing a human can do and definitely doesn’t change your value or worth.
Do we really want to be treating people differently based on their appearance?
We know that fatphobia and weight bias exists. We can easily see the true differences in how people are treated solely based on their body size, think about airplane seats, chairs in the conference room, life vests, the sizes in your favorite clothing store – our world isn’t built inclusively and it makes things much harder for those who live in bodies that aren’t ‘society’s ideal’ size, ability, etc. This combined with diet culture’s $70B agenda to sell us products and programs to shrink at all costs, we can easily see where our obsession with weight loss and dieting has come from.
For the most part, many of us can agree this is unfair now, think about how comments, assumptions and compliments on bodies, or changing weights contributes to this bigger narrative.
What if I’m trying to encourage their health?
A common defense of body and weight comments online especially is that by commenting on someone’s body or weight, you are trying to improve or promote their health. When these comments are shaming or stigmatizing, these are often called ‘concern trolling’ or which is the case when we are making assumptions about someone’s health by looking at them, those comments don’t actually promote health.
It’s not your job (or business) to be in charge of someone else’s body. Ask yourself why you feel obligated to talk to this person about their weight. Is it because you love them and want the best for them? Ask them how you can support them and be a good friend to them in general without taking on the role of their medical professional.
Comments on bodies reflect our own bias much more than they reflect the other person’s health. It can be helpful to use the impulse to make these comments as an opportunity to check-in and ask yourself where these beliefs came from, if they are true (and read into fatphobia, diet culture and beauty standards), how helpful they are to you, and what your real purpose is by saying them aloud to someone else. It’s not that we don’t see people or notice when their bodies might change, but push back against the assumption that your comment – even from a place of good intention – is actually helpful or necessary.
Shaming or judging someone’s body and health is not health-promoting. If you are concerned about someone’s body and weight it is helpful to refrain from making comments or judgements about their body and weight.
What can we say instead?
Flip the narrative! Commenting on bodies and weight is the normal so to change that narrative, you may need to actively choose to resist and replace that comment with something non-body focused. Chances are, when you’re in auto-pilot commenting on a person’s body or weight, what you really want to be doing is acknowledging them and making them feel seen. Try some of these comments instead!
Your smile lights up the room
I am so happy to see you
I feel like I can be completely myself around you
Your laugh is contagious
I am so inspired by the work that you do and how much you care for others
I love spending time with you
I love the way your brain works
You make people feel so welcome around you
If you’re really having trouble moving away from body/weight comments
Think of someone you love, respect and are grateful to have in your life.
Now, think of 3-5 things you love and respect about that person, what makes them special to you?
What number on that list was their jean size or how much they weigh? (Trick question, I think!) I bet it didn’t make the list. We love people and when we think about our true relationships, they are deeper than size or weight or body shape. When we stop commenting on bodies, or weight and feeling defined by this external validation, we can start to remind ourselves and others that what we really love about them and makes us connected to them is much more than their body.
The best advice for commenting on someone’s weight or body is: just don’t.